Saturday, September 15, 2018

Rex Stout, Curtains for Three

Rex Stout, Curtains for Three
© 1948, 1949, 1950 Rex Stout
Original book publication by The Viking Press, 1950
Reprinted by Bantam Crimeline, 1994

I’m continuing to read Stout’s novellas, featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, as bedtime reading, and recently finished this collection.  It is, I must admit, not one of my favorites, and includes what I often think is one of the weakest Wolfe stories that Stout wrote.

The collection opens with “The Gun With Wings;” Peggy Mion, the widow of a famous tenor (Alberto Mion), and the man she wants to marry (and who wants to marry her, Frederick Weppler (music critic for The Gazette) want Wolfe to investigate Mion’s death.  It has been officially been ruled a homicide—Mion had been shot by a bullet through his open mouth, and the  gun was found on the floor next to his hand, but they seem to have some reason for thinking that it might be murder.  Mion had been injured, assaulted by an angry baritone (Gifford James), who believes that Mion had seduced his daughter Clara.  Mion had sued James for damages, a he was unable, for the present, to perform.  But there’s a problem—neither Peggy nor Weppler can buy suicide.  And their concerns are getting in the way (perhaps partly because either of them would have had the opportunity to commit the crime.  And there’s another issue, to which the title of the story alludes.

Wolfe somewhat reluctantly takes the case, eventually getting his clients to come clean about their real concern.  And, of course, he discovers both who committed the murder—because murder it was, and how the gun with wings managed its trip.  And, not for the only time in his career, Wolfe moves things along by forging a document.  A nicely structured situation, brought nicely to a conclusion by Wolfe.  And the best of the three stories in the book.

In “Bullett for One,” Wolfe is hired by the daughter (Dorothy Keyes), partner Ferdinand Pohl), competitor (Frank Broadyke), unjustly fired employee (Audrey Rooney)and stable owner (Wayne Stafford) to investigate the murder of Sigmund Keyes, industrial designer extraordinaire.  Most of them believe that Victor Talbott, whose job it was to sell the designs crated by Keyes, is the murderer, the problem being that he has a very good alibi.  Keyes, you see, was shot while riding early one morning in Central Park (his horse was stabled with Stafford).  And Talbott, who often rode with him, was apparently in bed at the time, with testimony to that effect.  The problem is that the people seeking to hire Wolfe loom large among the alternative suspects.  And Wolfe, of course, refuses to take a case in which his job is to prove Talbott guilty.  Because, of course, what if he isn’t?  Among the high points, for me, were Archie’s interactions with one the NYPD’s finest, mounted patrolman Hefferman (I don’t believe we ever learn his first name). 

For much of the case, Archie is mostly sidelined, so much of what we actually observe is not particularly germane to the solution (or, really) to the investigation.  And, for me, the solution was something of a let-down.  Nonetheless, overall a good outing.

Which brings me to “Disguise for Murder” (originally titled “The Twisted Scarf,” which isn’t as evocative a title but does avoid putting the reader on the look-out for something).  Bill McNab, the garden editor of The Gazette, talks Wolfe into holding an open house for the members of the Manhattan Flower Club, and over 200 of the members and their guests show up.  Among them are “Cynthia Brown” and her “brother,” “Colonel Percy Brown,” there as guests of one of the club members, Mrs. Owrwin.  The “Browns” are running a con on Mrs. Orwin.  After a fairly trying afternoon, Archie heads for the office for a beak, and he is joined by “Cynthia.”  She wants to get him to get Wolfe to talk to her; she claims that the murderer of Doris Hatten (who was strangled a few weeks back) is there, looking at orchids.  Doris was being kept, by someone, and the general assumption (by the police, the papers…) is that her meal ticket got tired of her, or the expense, and killed her.  (I will note that the murder of a kept woman is a major part of the plot of a much later, full-length work—Death of a Doxy—and is much better handled there; a similar situation is also central to the Tecumseh Fox novel, The Broken Vase.)  Archie goes back to the roof, helps shepherd people out, intending to rope Wolfe into a conversation with “Cynthia.”  Except that by the time just about everyone has left, one of the guests—Mrs. Homer Carlisle—has peeked into the office and discovered “Cynthia,” dead, strangled by a scarf.

Leaving aside the general weakness of the presumed motive for the murder of Doris Hatten, I thought that both Archie and Inspector Cramer were a lot slow in picking up on the one fact that Wolfe had that he could use to pin down the murdered.  I also have always found the denouement fairly weak, and more than a little implausible.  Even with that one fact, actually proving that the murderer was guilty would have been awfully hard.  So I’ve always found this not to be one of the best.  Readable, of course, but with that very large flaw.

As a group, these are middling Stout, and will probably appeal most to those of us who treasure Stout and his work.  The casual reader of mysteries may be less than enchanted.

1 comment:

  1. "The casual reader of mysteries may be less than enchanted."
    Or, being casual, with lower expectations for Stout, may love them and keep reading him.